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Butler hosts Unified track and field meet

Coming together
Paige Ponteous reaches for her partner, Joey Poskin, as they run a race during the Butler unified track meet at Art Bernardi Stadium on Wednesday. Holly Mead/Special to the Eagle

BUTLER TWP — The weather broke ... and the smiles came out.

Butler hosted its lone Unified track and field meet of the season Wednesday at Art Bernardi Stadium, welcoming Armstrong and Fox Chapel.

This is the second season for the Golden Tornado’s Unified team, which mixes athletes from the high school — known as“partners” in these competitions — with Special Olympic athletes.

“I love this whole concept,” Butler athletic director Bill Mylan said. “It’s all about inclusion and it’s an educational experience for everyone. It’s all very positive.”

“It’s a unique event in that the athletes can compete against athletes, partners against partners, sometimes there’s a mix, and everyone can score points for their team,” said Stephanie Taylor, Unified Champions School Manager of the Three Rivers Region. “It really emphasizes the concept of team, of everybody working together.

“It’s great for self-esteem. It makes a real difference.”

Butler’s 15-member roster includes Abigail Bicker, Jessica Chwalik, Tommi Cummings, Evan Ellis, Carly Lydon, Paige Ponteous, Joey Poskin, Leah Poskin, Evan Rodgers, Reese Sequite, Aidan Sheakley, Emily Tallis, Jared Tisdale, Zachary Tisdale and Mikayla Wolfe.

No athlete participating in another spring varsity sport is permitted to be part of the Unified track team.

Tommi Cummings walks hand in hand with Jessica Chwalik, a "partner" for the Unified track and field meet held at Art Bernardi Stadium on Wednesday. Holly Mead/Special to the Eagle

“That makes it hard to increase our roster,” Butler Unified track coach Mandy Rekich said. “Our numbers are about the same as last year (the team’s debut season). A lot of people sign up, but when they do another spring sport, they can’t do it.”

Rekich is the mother of Tyler Rekich, a standout Butler athlete on the boys track and field team that won the 2022 state championship.

“When we were out at the state championship meet in Shippensbnurg, they ran the Unified state championships there as well,” she said. “As soon as I saw what it was about, I knew we had to bring this to Butler. The next year, we had a team.”

Butler is the only school in Butler County that has a Unified track and field team. Franklin Regional, Norwin and Central Valley have had teams for a while.

Taylor said there are 12 schools outside of Pittsburgh in the Three Rivers Region that have Unified track, along with seven Pittsburgh schools.

“We’re trying to get more schools involved, but athlete and facility availability are big factors there,” Taylor said. “But it’s a positive experience for everyone.”

Partners are permitted to run alongside athletes on the track, providing encouragement. Events in Unified meets include the 100 and 400 meters, a pair of relay events, the mini-javelin, shot put and long jump.

Jess Chwalik, a Tornado girls basketball player, is in her second season with the Unified track and field team.

“It’s all positive and uplifting,” she said. “Everyone is happy here. If somebody does badly, nobody gets upset. That person is encouraged. Everybody smiles. Everybody’s having a good time. This is how it should be.

“That atmosphere is why I do this. The sense of inclusion the athletes receive is very important.”

Paige Ponteous, a Butler golfer, agrees.

“Everybody loves this. The athletes look forward to it,” Ponteous said. “They get excited in the hallways at school and ask us if we’re ready for practice after school. They’re a part of something the school offers and they’re proud of that. I love working with them.”

Tommi Cummings is one of the more active athletes on the team, running up and down the sidelines supporting and encouraging her teammates during the meet.

“I love to win and I love to have fun ... I run to have fun,” Tommi said.

She hugged Chwalik as she spoke.

“She’s my favorite one,“ Tommi said. ”We’re buddies.“

Zachary Tisdale finished second in the 400 meters Wednesday — on his birthday.

The team practices twice a week and competes in three meets each spring, two away, on at home.

“That’s what every team gets,” Rekich said. “The state tournament is an option as well, but we haven’t done that yet. Hopefully, we will in the future.”

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